Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Here is a piece of what I mean:  the hidden costs of industrialised farming:  autopathic problems and a neverending, cost-escalating, ologarchogenic merrygoround of desperate bandaids.  
Soon after the news broke last month that nearly 200 Americans in 26 states had been sickened by eating packaged spinach contaminated with E. coli, I received a rather coldblooded e-mail message from a friend in the food business. "I have instructed my broker to purchase a million shares of RadSafe," he wrote, explaining that RadSafe is a leading manufacturer of food-irradiation technology. It turned out my friend was joking, but even so, his reasoning was impeccable. If bagged salad greens are vulnerable to bacterial contamination on such a scale, industry and government would very soon come looking for a technological fix; any day now, calls to irradiate the entire food supply will be on a great many official lips.  That's exactly what happened a few years ago when we learned that E. coli from cattle feces was winding up in American hamburgers. Rather than clean up the kill floor and the feedlot diet, some meat processors simply started nuking the meat - sterilizing the manure, in other words, rather than removing it from our food. Why? Because it's easier to find a technological fix than to address the root cause of such a problem. This has always been the genius of industrial capitalism - to take its failings and turn them into exciting new business opportunities.


Surely this points to one of the great advantages of a decentralized food system: when things go wrong, as they sooner or later will, fewer people are affected and, just as important, the problem can be more easily traced to its source and contained. A long and complicated food chain, in which food from all over the countryside is gathered together in one place to be processed and then distributed all over the country to be eaten, can be impressively efficient, but by its very nature it is a food chain devilishly hard to follow and to fix.

    Fortunately, this is not the only food chain we have. The week of the E. coli outbreak, washed spinach was on sale at my local farmers' market, and at the Blue Heron Farms stand, where I usually buy my greens, the spinach appeared to be moving briskly. I tasted a leaf and wondered why I didn't think twice about it. I guess it's because I've just always trusted these guys; I buy from them every week. The spinach was probably cut and washed that morning or the night before - it hasn't been sitting around in a bag on a truck for a week. And if there ever is any sort of problem, I know exactly who is responsible. Whatever the risk, and I'm sure there is some, it seems manageable.

    These days, when people make the case for buying local food, they often talk about things like keeping farmers in our communities and eating fresh food in season, at the peak of its flavor. We like what's going on at the farmers' market - how country meets city, how children learn that a carrot is not a glossy orange bullet that comes in a bag but is actually a root; how we get to taste unfamiliar flavors and even, in some sense, reconnect through these foods and their growers to the natural world. Stack all this up against the convenience and price of supermarket food, though, and it can sound a little ... sentimental.

But there's nothing sentimental about local food - indeed, the reasons to support local food economies could not be any more hardheaded or pragmatic. Our highly centralized food economy is a dangerously precarious system, vulnerable to accidental - and deliberate - contamination.


It's easy to imagine the FDA announcing a new rule banning animals from farms that produce plant crops. In light of the threat from E. coli, such a rule would make a certain kind of sense. But it is an industrial, not an ecological, sense. For the practice of keeping animals on farms used to be, as Wendell Berry pointed out, a solution; only when cows moved onto feedlots did it become a problem. Local farmers and local food economies represent much the same sort of pre-problem solution - elegant, low-tech and redundant. But the logic of industry, apparently ineluctable, has other ideas, ideas that not only leave our centralized food system undisturbed but also imperil its most promising, and safer, alternatives.

it is cheaper not to break things in the first place than to patch them up afterwards.  but in a monetised industrial economy there is "profit" to be made in the ever-expanding market sector of Patching Things Up Afterwards, which in turn spawns whole new market sectors to patch up the side effects of the bandaids.  so there is always more profit to be made by doing things wrong (DeAnander's Law of Industrial Capitalism) which explains why the "logic of industry" is insane and suicidal, and feeds a death spiral of increasing energy inputs, increasing authoritarianism and centralised control, and diminishing returns...

words to live by:  "elegant, low-tech, redundant".  I would add:  ubiquitous, distributed, transparent.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Oct 16th, 2006 at 08:00:40 PM EST
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